'Why should we reject the chosen capital of a close ally?'

As deadline nears, US lawmakers hear case for moving embassy to Jerusalem

Subcommittee chair pushes for mission to be relocated from Tel Aviv; White House official says move ‘a matter of when, not if’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP)
Rep. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP)

American lawmakers on Wednesday discussed the possibility of moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some three weeks before US President Donald Trump will have to decide on whether to postpone the action for another six months.

The two-hour discussion took place in the House Oversight Subcommittee for National Security, which is in charge of security arrangements for US diplomatic missions across the globe.

Trump has so-far balked at moving the mission to Israel’s capital, despite initial excitement that he would make good on the campaign promise, but he has left the possibility open, with Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida leading an investigation into the possibility of transferring the embassy.

“US policy should recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, because Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for thousands of years and is the beating heart of modern Israel,” said DeSantis, who chairs the subcommittee. “Why should we reject the chosen capital city of a close ally?”

Santis, who in March led a fact finding mission to Jerusalem about a possible relocation, said there were good reasons why Trump should move the embassy to Jerusalem. Israel is the only country which guarantees religious freedom for everyone in the city, which has become “one of the world’s crown jewels,” he said.

US Congressman Ron DeSantis in Jerusalem, March 5, 2017, following a 24-hour tour studying the possibility of relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Furthermore, a move would demonstrate American leadership, the Congressman added. “Leaders in the Middle East respect the strong horse, and acting with decisiveness to defend American and standing by a close American ally is far more preferable to defaulting on a key promise like past leaders have done.”

On June 1, Trump — who during the election campaign repeatedly vowed to move the embassy — signed a waiver that delays the relocation for six months. The waiver is expiring on December 1, but Trump is expected to renew it, arguing that it could jeopardize the administration’s efforts to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“The president has always made it very clear that it is a matter of when, not if. We have no news to share at this time,” a White House official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Donald Trump’s Presidential Memorandum waiving the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, June 1, 2017.

DeSantis acknowledged the president’s hesitance to announce the embassy relocation at this sensitive point in time, but called for “incremental steps” to be taken in the meantime, for instance having the US ambassador in Israel conduct at least part of his work week from Jerusalem.

Opponents of the move argue that it could enrage “the so-called Arab street and provide a pretext for acts of terrorism,” DeSantis said. “Who knows, that may be true. But does it make sense to shirk from doing what’s right for fear of what our enemies might do?”

Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch raised concerns over the possible move.

“I’m just advising caution, that we consider … including the Israeli security interests on this issue, and that we give respect to our allies in the region. Moving forward but proceeding with caution,” he said.

The US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, adjoining a possible site for the US Embassy (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The US could easily relocate the embassy by changing the sign at the door of one its consulates in Jerusalem, DeSantis said. The main US consulate building on 14 David Flusser Street, in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood, is best suited for that purpose, as it is spacious enough and allows for adequate security arrangements, he said.

“That the annex in Arnona straddles the 1949 Armistice Line also counts in its favor as a potential site.”

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Five experts testified before the subcommittee, all of whom agreed that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and that by right the US Embassy should be there. Most panelists argued vehemently in favor of the relocation; only Michael​ ​​Koplow,​ policy​ director at the Israel Policy Forum, cautioned of possible negative repercussions.

“I believe that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and relocating our Embassy there on incontestably Israeli sovereign territory would be sensible, prudent and efficient for the United States government,” former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton said.

The US Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, December 28, 2016. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

“Indeed, fully regularizing the American diplomatic presence in Israel will benefit both countries, which is why, worldwide, the US Embassy in virtually every other country we recognize is in the host country’s capital city.”

Bolton rebutted arguments that relocating the embassy would upset the chances of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“If the Middle East peace process is such a delicate snowflake that the location of the US Embassy in Israel could melt it, one has to doubt how viable it is to begin with,” he said.

“Washington’s role as an honest broker in the peace process will not be enhanced or reduced in the slightest by moving its Embassy to Jerusalem. To say otherwise is to mistake pretext for actual cause. Moving the Embassy may produce new talking points for those who have never reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence in the first place, but it will not ‘cause’ any change in the existing geopolitical state of play.”

Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, strongly advocated for the relocation as well, arguing that only Israel will safeguard religious freedom for all at the holy sites in Jerusalem.

“There is a regional assault on holy sites underway across our region. Israel deserves your support as it defends Jerusalem. For only a free and democratic Israel will protect Jerusalem for all the great faiths,” Gold said.

Trump made a commitment to move the embassy, “and I believe he will stand by what he has said,” Gold told the subcommittee.

Israeli leaders have lobbied for decades for the embassy move, though some have reportedly expressed private worries that the move could inflame regional tensions.

Koplow, of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, said the move “could have potentially damaging national security implications,” though he also said the move would be “fair.”

“There are three primary national security considerations that favor keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv: preventing violence in Israel and the West Bank and the targeting of American diplomatic facilities, safeguarding the interests of Sunni Arab regional allies, and maintaining conditions for the Trump Administration or any future administrations to successfully advance an initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” he said.

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